Carter, Romney, Obama, and bin Laden

Of all my political mistakes, helping Jimmy Carter get elected in 1976 has to have been the worst (so far). In four years, he managed to blow what should have been the indestructible partisan edge the Democrats inherited from Watergate. No Carter, no Reagan. And he did it while compiling a very limited record of legislative achievement, and in particular while missing what in retrospect was the last clear shot at serious campaign-finance reform.

I shouldn’t have been under any illusions; after all, I was there when he toured Capitol Hill that winter, greeting the male staffers with “Hello, I’m Governor Carter, and I’m running for President” and the female staffers with “Hello, little lady! I’m Jimmah Carter, and I’m going to be your next President!” I’ve never been able to quite get clear on what stands out the most: Carter’s cognitive limits, his utter unawareness of those limits (characterized by his belief that an undergraduate engineering degree made him a “scientist”), his political selfishness and absence of team spirit, or his sheer oleaginous self-righteousness.

All of these were on display when Carter decided to undercut this year’s entire Democratic campaign theme by endorsing the stupid “Romney-is-a-moderate” idea. No surprise there, really. That’s our Jimmah: eliably treacherous to his friends and helpful to his enemies.

It’s perhaps slightly more surprising that Mitt Romney should have responded to this piece of generosity on Carter’s part by insulting Carter. Trying to back away from his earlier statements that it wasn’t worth spending a lot of money to get one man and that going into Pakistani territory to go after terrorists would be wrong, Romney said on the anniversary of the raid that killed Osama bin Laden, “Of course, even Jimmy Carter would have given that order.”

The only reason I can think of for Romney to say what he said is that the statement, as he made it, is obviously false, and Romney is addicted to lying. We know what Jimmy Carter would have done, because we know what he actually did do, under parallel circumstances: allow himself to be talked into going in without enough resources, risking having to scrub the mission if three out of eight helicopters failed (compared to a predicted two out of eight). Obama, by contrast, personally insisted on what turned out to be the essential extra chopper going into Abbotabad.

Moreover, of course, while making the final call was indeed dramatic, the key moves that Obama took – and Bush didn’t take – involved putting in motion the machinery that got us to the place where the final call was there to be made. Obama got bin Laden because Obama wanted to get bin Laden. There’s no evidence on the record that any of the Republicans – Bush, McCain, or Romney – shared that desire.

[Cross-posted at The Reality-Based Community]

Mark Kleiman

Mark Kleiman is a professor of public policy at the New York University Marron Institute.